Ari Roland: Sketches from a Bassists Album

[9 May 2006]

By Robert R. Calder

Something familiar about that start…?

Actually, I was reminded of the private recordings of the Texan pianist Peck Kelley, an entirely legendary figure till these tapes turned up after his death, followed by some private recordings on a disc I saw once at a price beyond my pocket. This sort of reference might appeal to the management of Smalls Records, which is preoccupied with the fact that so many genuinely major jazz creators have remained unknown. The guys on this new set aren’t in the same situation, since Smalls now exists and is recording them. What really brought Kelley to mind—he was active in the 1920s, but on late recordings sounds a little like Lennie Tristano—was the informal lope, in Kelley’s case maybe from relaxation, informality, and in the present because the opening tracks have an unusual sprung feel, as if (or because) the young bassist isn’t simply the leader, but the support of the band. The drummer does a decent job of timekeeping, and can’t be faulted, but where other bands seem to be led by a horn or driven by a percussionist (or two or more), this set is paced by a double bass.

There is, of course, something of the same feel on the live recordings of Frank Hewitt’s quintet, recently reviewed on this site and featuring Roland as ensemble and solo (bowed) bassist. If he’s responsible for the jam session feel, that may have something to do with the demands of transition to bowed bass solo from accompaniment. What this has to do with the title of the third track, “Replaceable Me” (third of seven Roland compositions here) is hard to say. Yet, Roland does produce a striking, almost tolling, pedal movement after his solo on that title, in support of Chris Per’s classic bebop piano that immediately follows.

Even more striking than the title, “Swamp Thing Goes to the Indy 500” is the colossal sound of Orlando’s dynamic, almost fevered uptempo fingerwork moving the opening along before the for-once pizzicato rather than arco (plucked rather than bowed) bass solo. He begins “Mensch Blues” on bowed bass, solo or with the pianist, until the moment he holsters the bow and there is a silence almost dramatic… whereupon the great balladic beauty of Chris Byars’s solo tenor saxophone emerges to soothe the soul. Roland provides towering support, as he does for Perry’s characteristic piano solo. Perry reciprocates with support for the bowed bass solo, which comes to an end with the end of that lovely performance. 

“Ah Transcarpathicus” opens with the saxophone on quicker medium tempo, with Bud Powell-spiky piano accompaniment, and the drums doing everything they should, but quietly, with Roland not quite so gigantic as before. He almost roars into another stint of front-line bowing, impressive again, before Perry’s solo, and a trading of fours which allows the drummer to be heard more clearly than hitherto.

“Thou Swell” introduces a first standard after, in effect, five bop vehicles of Roland’s and the divine blues. Perry is again on the Powell kick, which seems to come naturally to him, and Byars is like a dark-toned Stan Getz. If there is an echo of the 1940s, it’s in part a reflection of the bassist having the big sound with which bassists (Walter Page) used to move big bands; but also of Roland having the ambitions of subsequent bassists who organised their sound to enable fluent articulation. “Byars-a-Maki” brings to mind once-famous duets recorded at New York’s Town Hall 60 years ago by Slam Stewart and Don Byas. This is another bebop vehicle from Roland, certainly when Perry comes in with the drummer. 

“Mo’s On” can only be described as a racer, composed by Elmo Hope and posing a huge challenge to the pianist, also forcing Roland more into the cello register simply in order to articulate with bow. Exciting it is, and the drum solo sustains momentum, letting the music breathe after such a full sound. Roland’s solo interlude is also in the higher register. The Styne and Cahn “I’ll Walk Alone” which closes the set begins with Perry playing two-handed and with a lot of power, before the bassist’s entry, bowed again. Byars, with one of the prettiest sounds to have emerged on tenor in some time, is a huge refreshment, with Roland walking, and maintaining wonderful Ray Brown business behind Perry. The relaxation at the end is wonderful.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/ari_roland_sketches_from_a_bassists_album/